Sep 172019

Go back to the beginning…

10. The Byrds – Jesus Is Just Alright (The Art Reynolds Singers cover)

Following their 1965 hit cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” The Byrds began cranking out Dylan covers at a quick pace. They knew a hit formula when they saw one, and in 1969 alone they covered “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Lay Lady Lay,” and “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Quality control remained high throughout, but their absolute best cover of the year looked to a more esoteric source: gospel. Drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram, whose brief tenure in the band had already ended) had been present in the studio several years prior when The Art Reynolds Singers recorded the original version of what became a “hip” gospel standard, and he brought it to the Byrds. Though released as a single, their version was no sort of a hit, which must have been doubly disappointing two years later when The Doobie Brothers took a similar arrangement to the Top 40.

9. Rotary Connection – The Weight (The Band cover)

We just heard the Bryds turned a gospel song into Americana, and with their cover of “The Weight,” Rotary Connection goes in the other direction. Taken from their album Songs – the best all-covers album of the year, bar none – this Band remake brings a heavy dose of psychedelia to the church. Though they wouldn’t become associated with the song until 1976’s The Last Waltz concert, The Staple Singers had released their first cover of the song in 1968. Rotary Connection takes their gospel template and trips it far out.

8. Johnny Winter – Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan cover)

Blues great Johnny Winter’s slide-guitar workout “Highway 61 Revisted” is one of the great Dylan covers ever. Admittedly, it would shine even more in later, longer live versions (check out the nearly 11-minute long version on his 1976 album Captured Live!, or the condensed fury he played at the star-packed 1993 Dylan tribute concert), but the template was set right here in 1969. It came from his album Second Winter, which, confusingly, was either his third of fourth album, depending on if you count his second album First Winter, which was released to little fanfare by a different label after he got signed to Columbia.

7. Big Mama Thornton – Wade in the Water (Traditional cover)

We already heard a killer cover of “Hound Dog” (#29), but that wouldn’t be the last splash Big Mama Thornton made in 1969. A decade and a half past her biggest hit, her career had recently been revived by another cover: Not Elvis, but Janis, who performed Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” on 1968’s chart-topping Big Brother and the Holding Company album Cheap Thrills. Seizing her moment, Big Mama showed she hadn’t lost an ounce of her power on a storming version of Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

6. Rahsaan Roland Kirk – I Say a Little Prayer (Dionne Warwick cover)

In a year of a million instrumental covers, one tops them all. No surprise, I suppose, that it comes from the world of jazz. The sort of fingerpickin’-tribute-to-Joni-Mitchell (#44) or exotica-tribute-to-the-Stones (#49) stuff, even when strong, tends to steer along the contours of the original: same tempo, rhythm, melody. Sax giant Rahsaan Roland Kirk does anything but. He starts by making the pop song political, hollering “They shot him down!” (Martin Luther King, presumably?). His combo zooms through a fast and funky riff on the iconic Burt Bacharach melody, veering in and around the melody while taking some avant-garde detours to outer space. The eight minutes flies by; you feel they could have continued for eighty more.

5. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Cotton Fields (Lead Belly cover)

Did any band have as good a year in 1969 as Creedence Clearwater Revival? Hell, how many bands have ever had that good a year ever? The band released three separate albums, all classics: Bayou County, Green River, and Willy and the Poor Boys. To get there, they had to include some covers on each – but don’t you dare use the term “pad them.” They made their covers count. “The Midnight Special,” “The Night Time Is the Right Time,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly” all deserve honorable mention. But they topped themselves on “Cotton Fields,” turning Lead Belly’s jumping blues classic into a swamp-rock standard that bar bands have been playing ever since. In 1970, it went to #1…in Mexico.

4. Wilson Pickett – Hey Jude (The Beatles cover)

The year’s greatest Beatles cover is also one of its best-known. Sometimes, the buying public gets it right. Much gets made of a young Duane Allman’s participation here; he recommended the song to Pickett, and it first drew Eric Clapton to him, who once said, “To this day, I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record.” But let’s be clear: No one upstages Pickett, who hollers over Allman’s celebrated soloing, making for one of the most viscerally exciting codas in rock and roll history.

3. Isaac Hayes – Walk On By (Dionne Warwick cover)

I was torn whether to pick this or Isaac Hayes’ other epic cover this year, the 18-minute “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” That one remains a classic, no doubt, a long spoken-word meditation ever so slowly building to the actual song. But I landed on the only slightly less ostentatious “Walk on By” for sheer replay value. It earns every minute of its twelve, to the point where you could easily just listen to it again (I know; I have). Though Isaac Hayes remains the show’s star on this funk vamp, guitarist Harold Beane almost steals the show on a far-out performance worthy of Eddie Hazel. And you’ll notice this makes two Bacharach-David-Dionne Warwick numbers in the top ten – more than the Beatles! Maybe that trio were the secret stars of 1969.

2. The Brothers and Sisters – All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan cover)

Gospel choir The Brothers and Sisters didn’t belong to any church. Rather, the group collected 27 unknown Los Angeles session musicians for a stunning tribute album aptly titled Dylan’s Gospel. Every track is divine, but their “All Along the Watchtower” stands above. Rare is the “Watchtower” cover that owes little to Hendrix, but this version doesn’t even include a guitar. There is a tight church band, but with 27 singers, you know the vocals stand above. It starts as a near solo performance by a killer singer whose name I can’t track down, but like a distant tidal wave, the 26 other singers slowly come closer and closer. By the last verse, they crash over her, taking the lead vocals for their own as the singer fades into background duty. It’s a bravura performance all around that will bring chills no matter how many times you’ve herd this song covered. Several singers here went on to greater fame, including Merry Clayton, who sang “Gimme Shelter” with the Rolling Stones later that same year.

1. Dusty Springfield – The Windmills of Your Mind (Noel Harrison cover)

Dusty Springfield didn’t want to record “The Windmills of Your Mind.” She couldn’t relate to the lyrics, she said. But for once, the suits were right. Atlantic Records president Jerry Wexler talked her into it and she delivered one of her greatest recording off her indisputably greatest album, Dusty in Memphis. The 1968 original, sung by actor and musical lightweight Noel Harrison, won an Academy Award for its use in the The Thomas Crown Affair, but it pales in comparison. Dusty slows the song way down; a year before Tina Turner opened “Proud Mary” by talking about how they were going to start it easy and then end it fast, Dusty did just that. A barely-there backing ever so gradually builds over the runtime, allowing her to explode near the end. It so thoroughly eclipsed the original – which, again, had just won an Oscar – that Harrison’s version faded into immediate obscurity. Whether she wanted it or not, “The Windmills of Your Mind” was Dusty’s song now.

Want more? Check out previous retrospectives on the best covers of 1996, 1987, and 1978!

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